The next event in the UAE's literary calendar opens in Dubai on Wednesday. We preview the main attractions.
The second Emirates Airline Festival of Literature takes off
It is a cliché - that one about rain and pouring - but it seems fitting to describe the country's literary scene of late. Barely have we had a chance to catch our breath after the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair, which finished yesterday, before the action shifts to Dubai, where the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature (EAFL) starts on Wednesday. The lights, it seems, have not dimmed in the authors' green room. The likes of Wilbur Smith, Kate Mosse, Terry Brooks, Brian Aldiss and Philippa Gregory may have been jostling for the microphone in 2009, but a no less stellar guest list has been lined up for the festival's second year. And with a greatly expanded programme of events, including author talks, workshops and Arabic-interest events as well as a significantly larger offering for children, the EAFL is well on its way to establishing itself as a beacon in the UAE's cultural scene.
Happily, the ripples of controversy caused by Margaret Atwood's withdrawal last year (a misunderstanding over the supposed banning of The Gulf Between Us, a Gulf-based romance by the British author Geraldine Bedell) are nowhere to be seen this time around. It wouldn't be a literary festival, though, without a few incendiary sparks, considerately provided by the British author Martin Amis. Undoubtedly the festival's biggest draw, his recent novel The Pregnant Widow has been described by critics as "a return to form" (a comment that prompted a typically indignant response in a recent interview with the British newspaper The Guardian. "What's this 'return ----'?" barked Amis. "He never went away.") An opportunity to hear him speak - unmissable considering the political firecrackers that tend to trip from his tongue - will present itself on Wednesday at 8.30pm when the author will be in conversation with Paul Blezard. Attending with Amis will be his wife, the American-Urugyan author Isabel Fonseca, whose first novel, Attachment, was published in 2008.
Another huge coup for the festival is the Indian author Amit Chaudhuri. Fresh from the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair, the composer, musician and author of five acclaimed novels will give a concert, pointedly titled This Is Not Fusion (it combines elements of jazz, blues, rock, techno and Indian popular song) on Friday at 7pm. Then at 4pm on Saturday will be Words & Music, a session in which he will discuss his love of music and its relationship with words with the author Alexander McCall Smith.
McCall Smith is unrivalled in his ability to churn out enjoyable books in the time it takes you to say "The No 1 Ladies Detective Agency". His hugely popular series, set in Botswana detailing the adventures of the charmingly rotund sleuth Precious Ramotswe, has now reached 10 volumes since the first instalment was published in 1998. And then there are his other series: The 2½ Pillars of Wisdom, The Sunday Philosophers Club and his extensive back catalogue of children's books. Somehow, though, the author, who was born in what is now Zimbabwe and is also a foremost authority on medical law, has found time to attend the EAFL. Hear him in conversation at 5.30pm on Thursday.
Those with a penchant for crime of a slightly grittier nature will be well-catered for, too: some of the genre's most prolific authors, including Mark Billingham, Jeffrey Deaver and Roger Jon Ellory, will be here to give their twopences-worth. Billingham's series of novels featuring Detective Inspector Tom Thorne have won him a loyal following in his native UK as well as abroad. Deaver, a lawyer-turned-crime-writer, has continually topped best-seller lists with his intricately constructed crime novels. And Ellory's work has been nominated for numerous awards, most notably 2007's A Quiet Belief in Angels, which not only received the Barry Award for Best British Crime Fiction Novel of 2008, but was also doused in the publishing fairy dust that is the Richard and Judy Book Club. Hear the three of them discuss the vagaries of crime fiction at the Crime Writers' Panel on Thursday at 4pm.
Other authors to catch are Tim Butcher, whose brilliant Blood River: A Journey to Africa's Broken Heart described his epic journey through Congo in 2004; Kate Adie and John Simpson, who will both be recounting anecdotes from their careers as war correspondents; and the queen of the gothic mystery, Kate Mosse, who is back at the EAFL for the second year. Yann Martel will also be discussing how to follow up on the huge success of his 2002 Man Booker Prize-winning novel in a session titled Life After Pi on Friday at 8pm.
The bill of writers from the East is no less illustrious. At 5pm on Friday, the Pakistani author Imran Ahmad, whose Unimagined: A Muslim Boy Meets the West explores the fractious relationship that developed between the two cultures after the events of September 11, 2001, will be reflecting lightheartedly on the hurdles he faced in getting his book published. Marjane Satrapi, the woman behind the dazzlingly innovative graphic novel Persepolis, which is about her life as a girl in Iran during and after the revolution, will be in conversation with Paul Blezard at 6pm the same day, followed at 6.30 by Vikas Swarup, whose novel Q&A was adapted for the screen as Slumdog Millionaire, discussing the aftermath of success.
More luminaries remain, including Ahdaf Soueif, who wrote The Map of Love, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 1999; the Iraqi poet Fadhil al-Azzawi and Leila Abouleila, the Sudanese author and Abu Dhabi resident whose work has been nominated for several international awards, including the Orange and IMPAC prizes. Also in attendance will be both this year's winner of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (the so-called "Arabic Booker"), the Saudi Arabian Abdo Khal, and last year's, the Egyptian Youssef Zeidan.
But the EAFL is not just about the best-seller lists: a selection of writers from Beirut 39, a coalition of 39 of the Arab world's best new writers, will discuss the innovative writing project at a discussion on Saturday at 4pm. And then, of course, there is the children's programme, which has been tripled in size following feedback from last year's festival. The main attraction here is Jacqueline Wilson, the monumentally successful children's author who can be credited with shifting teenage girls' fiction about as far as is imaginably possible from four young friends and their dog (think titles such as Falling Apart, Making Hate and Truth or Dare). She will be discussing her work and its themes on Saturday at 11.30am.
Worth catching are Oliver Jeffers, the writer and illustrator of such modern classics as Lost and Found and How to Catch a Star, who will be holding a drawing and storytelling workshop on Saturday at 1pm, and Darren Shan, whose first children's book, Cirque du Freak, was a huge critical success. Also on the bill will be Conn Iggulden, who, with his brother Hal, wrote The Dangerous Book for Boys and unleashed a publishing phenomenon.
The Emirates Airline Festival of Literature runs from Wednesday to Saturday at the Intercontinental Hotel, Dubai Festival City. For tickets and more information go to www.emirateslitfest.com.